Dominick Zator could be sitting as an accountant in an office somewhere today. Crunching numbers and perhaps thinking back to what might have been. He’d certainly be making more money than playing football in the Canadian Premier League.
Instead he sits today as a history maker and a match winner after one of the most memorable nights in his fledgling footballing career.
That doomsday scenario was very close to becoming a reality for the former Calgary Dinos standout. Seven months after signing his first pro deal with Whitecaps 2, the club wound up operations, leaving Zator as one of a number of players wondering where their footballing futures lay, and even if they had one.
“There were those doubts going through me head,” Zator admitted to AFTN. “I had my degree from the University of Calgary, so the other option was to be an accountant and have that office job. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
But from despair and disappointment came opportunity back home in Calgary.
Tommy Wheeldon Jr brought Zator back into the Foothills fold, after having played the 2015 and 2016 PDL seasons with them as he finished college. Zator had played in the 2016 Championship game, a 3-2 loss to Michigan Bucks. Two years later and he was lifting the PDL trophy after Foothills’ 4-2 extra time win over Reading United, with Zator getting the goal that took the game into the extra period of play.
When Wheeldon made the jump up to the CPL with Cavalry, Zator was one of several players the Englishman brought with him, and he’s certainly repaid that faith shown in him.
“From the conversations I had with Tommy, he had the belief in me to come in and continue my career,” Zator said. “He knows there’s always new things coming up. I’m thankful and happy that I was able to continue and play here with Cavalry now.”
The move back into the pro ranks has seen the 24-year-old centre back excel, developing far more than he did in his limited minutes with WFC2, but despite how that 2017 USL season was and how it ended, Zator looks back at that time in Vancouver as one of the things that has made him the player he is today.
“It was a great experience,” Zator reflected on his brief time in Vancouver. “They welcomed me. It was good to go through the lows with how the season went and the team folding at the end. It opened up my eyes as to the realisation of what can come with a pro team.
“It’s a good way to grow from that and the way that I was able to talk to Tommy, go back with the Foothills team and have a successful year. So I think the way that the Whitecaps happened, it was a good way to grow from there.”
Success has certainly followed Zator since he left Vancouver. That 2018 PDL championship has been the catalyst for Cavalry FC’s excellent start in the CPL, with Zator being one of a number of key players that made the move up with Wheeldon.
A spring season CPL title has now been secured, guaranteeing Cavalry a place in October’s championship game. They’re unbeaten to start the fall season. And now they’ve made history for the club and for the league in knocking off higher league opposition in the shape of Vancouver Whitecaps.
Could he have dreamt that it would have went any better? Not only winning that first CPL title but now knocking Vancouver Whitecaps out of the Canadian Championship at their own place, scoring the goal that killed the tie off and saw Cavalry FC make history.
“No, honestly I couldn’t,” he said with a laugh when AFTN caught up with him after Wednesday’s match. “I was just hoping to come to BC Place, just perform well, and give everything we’ve got and try and come away with a victory.
“But to be able to score the winning goal, it’s phenomenal. I was so happy to do that, help the boys, and honestly, the city, the club, to be able to go to the semi-finals, we’ve made history tonight for the CPL.”
It was probably written in the stars that it would be a former Whitecap that came back to haunt them. That’s how football often goes. That it was Zator shouldn’t have been surprising. Aside from the excellent season he is having, he has a taste for the big matches.
“He only scores in big games,” Wheeldon joked with us after the match. “He says he doesn’t like these meaningless, average games. He likes semi-finals, national championships, cup competitions, or inaugural games. That’s what Dominick Zator does.”
As tongue in cheek as Wheeldon was being, he’s not wrong. Zator scored the winning goal in the 2016 Western Conference championship game, he scored the goal to tie up the 2018 PDL Championship game and send it into extra time, and he scored the winner in Cavalry’s first ever CPL match, a 2-1 win over York9.
Goals and assists have always been part of his game. In 68 U Sports appearances for the Dinos he scored six goals and added 15 assists, 11 of those coming in his Canada West leading final season. Impressive for any player, never mind a centre back.
But it’s his, and Cavalry’s, defensive play that has turned heads in the CPL season. Zator has been a key part of a Cavalry backline that has kept nine cleans sheets across all competitions this season, including blanking the Whitecaps in the Canadian Championship first leg at Spruce Meadows.
They could have had another in the second leg if it wasn’t for a deflection, but they did reduce the Whitecaps to just three shots on target in a home match against “lower league” opposition that they had to win and trailed in from the 7th minute.
Not only is that impressive, it’s also how they drew it up in the locker room.
“That’s kind of our gameplan, to stay very connected together defensively,” Zator said. “Yeah, I guess we thought they’d be coming out, maybe trying to take shots from distance, test our keeper a little but. But I think it was the way we were defending. Nice and tight. We were limiting them to a very small amount of chances. What we did defensively helped us get the win tonight.”
And as Nik Ledgerwood damningly noted after the match, everyone on the Cavalry team felt they could win that game, a feeling he felt was missing on the Whitecaps side. It’s a winning mentality that Wheeldon has drilled into his squad, one which helps shape the identity of the team, especially on that defensive side.
“Now that everyone is so familiar with each other, we know everybody’s strengths and weaknesses, so that’s come into play with us this year,” Zator told us. “It’s massive for us. That gave us an advantage for the spring season, which helped us get the win, and it’s helped us start the fall season with three wins, and now this.
“Tommy has been grilling us with the way we want to play, the way we want to shape our defensive line and all that. The desire. We want to keep those clean sheets, get into those scruffy tackles, making sure we’re doing those last ditch efforts, saves. It’s just kind of our culture and routine.”
It’s also a culture and mindset that Zator believes will take this Cavalry side a very long way.
“Why stop now?,” Zator said. “We want to continue with a winning record.”